Head of Army defends Britain's role in Basra in open letter to his troops

The head of the British Army has taken the unusual step of writing an open letter to his troops in which he defends Britain's low-key role during an offensive against Shia militias in Basra.

The message from General Sir Richard Dannatt, made available to The Independent on Sunday, is intended to reassure troops in the face of claims that the British presence at Basra airport is increasingly untenable, and that the Iraqi government supposedly snubbed senior UK commanders during the recent operation.

The Chief of the General Staff, who has just returned from Basra, stated: "I cannot deny that there are many who said that they would rather be at the forefront of the operations (as CGS I think I would be worried if I headed an Army that did not express such views), but those same individuals were all mature enough to understand it is right that the Iraqis are now taking the lead.

"Indeed, these are exactly the nature of operations that we have been pressing for some months – an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem".

The Iraqi government operation in Basra was criticised for being poorly planned and executed, with reports of Shia soldiers deserting to the Mehdi Army of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But General Dannatt states: "Having visited Iraq and talked to many of those involved, I have concluded that this is unreasonable and ignores the complexity of dealing with determined adversaries in challenging counter-insurgency operations.

"Just as multinational forces have challenges in operating in a foreign country, the Iraqi Security Forces face different challenges in operating in their own country.

"No one would deny that aspects of the Iraqi operation could have gone better at the outset. But there is no doubt that each phase has gone from strength to strength and is now showing significant results – the Iraqi plan is working and is delivering what we sought. Indeed, Basrawis are now being reported as 'optimistic' about their future for the first time in many years." General Dannatt's message will be distributed to the troops tomorrow.

Soon after becoming the head of the Army, Sir Richard caused controversy with an outspoken interview addressing issues such as the policy in Iraq. He is said to believe that troops risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan must be kept apprised of his views on the operations.

The Independent on Sunday revealed recently that British troops are back in Basra, six months after leaving the city, and holding to a policy of staying outside the city limits. About 150 are on duty alongside Iraqi forces as mentors. US troops were sent from central and northern Iraq to take part in the operation.

General Dannatt's letter continues: "Following the principles of overwatch, we have provided support to the Iraqis where it is appropriate and within our rules of engagement. In addition, we have continued to mentor the Iraqi Security Forces, and that is where most of our effort is now directed."